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Ways for churches to celebrate Martin Luther King Day

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Washington D.C.
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Washington D.C.

Every third Monday in January, Americans observe a solemn day of remembering preacher and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The day offers time both to celebrate of the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and to reflect and reaffirm of the principles of equality, justice and racial reconciliation for which King stood.

The United Methodist Church calls upon congregations and annual conferences across the United States to honor of King’s legacy and also to address contemporary issues of injustice in society.

Incorporate remembrance into worship

Many churches use services on the weekend prior to the official holiday to remember Dr. King. Discipleship Ministries has suggested worship resources online, including recommended hymns. Because the denomination also observes Human Relations Day during that weekend, church leaders encourage giving to ministries that continue King’s heroic witness on behalf of the oppressed.

Some churches may choose to host a worship service honoring King at times other than Sunday morning. Ben Hill United Methodist Church in Atlanta hosts an MLK Monday morning service featuring a guest speaker from the African American community. The men’s choir sings African American spirituals such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “We Shall Overcome.” Children from Ben Hill's Christian Academy recite Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from memory while the church honors the service of members and community leaders during an awards ceremony.

Ben Hill also hosts a “Hill Café” in its Fellowship Hall on the Saturday evening before MLK Day with live jazz, gospel and blues music. Local African American artists are also showcasing their work. “This is a celebration of African American culture and how the Civil Rights Movement born out of the church was sustained by music and art,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Pollard, associate pastor.

Host a special celebration

Many churches host additional events and programs, such as luncheons, concerts, parades or seminars, over the holiday weekend to honor King’s memory. Some congregations invite local activists to speak about contemporary justice issues. Here Below are a few examples of the types of events congregations and conferences might host.

Every year Union United Methodist Church in Boston co-presents the MLK Memorial Breakfast with St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church. Well-known keynote speakers and special guests attend, including national political and religious leaders. The event is the United States’ longest running MLK Memorial Breakfast.

MLK Day celebrations offer a great opportunity for interfaith partnerships and dialogue. St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa hosts a Monday evening meal with live music, speakers and a recognition ceremony for young people engaged in local justice issues. St. Paul’s partners with Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, two local colleges, the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission and the city public library system to plan the celebration.

Participate in local activism or community service

Churches may also participate in local community rallies and parades. Every year community organizations in Detroit, Michigan host an annual MLK Day March and Rally. Central United Methodist Church has been a sponsor and host for the rally in years past. In recent years, the rally has drawn attention to contemporary community concerns of police brutality, workers’ rights, environmental justice and education reform.

Annual conferences are also host MLK Day-related events and celebrations. In 2020 the Western North Carolina Annual Conference will sponsor a commemoration service entitled “Embracing Our Beloved Community: Persevering despite Adversity” on Saturday, Jan. 18 at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem.

United Methodists are also encouraged to devote time during the weekend to service and acts of mercy toward their neighbors. Many congregations will host or participate in service or charity events such as a food drive for the homeless, a community construction project, a blood drive or providing free day-care for children whose parents have to work.

Concord United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, is hosting its fifth annual Mission Blitz. From Saturday through Monday the church will be part of 21 different projects (6-8 a day) from assembling UMCOR health kits to working on a Habitat for Humanity build. Volunteers can sign up for as many projects as they want.

Churches not hosting their own service event can encourage members to participate in local projects by sharing information during worship and fellowship events. Members can also visit sites like to search for volunteer opportunities in the community.

All across the United States, congregations and United Methodist organizations will remember and honor the legacy of Dr. King and recommit themselves to principles of equality and justice. Racism, systematic injustice, poverty and hate still plague our society in many places. As we celebrate the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Dr. King and others, we can recommit to striving for a world where his dream will be the reality everywhere.

Philip J. Brooks is a writer and content developer with the leader communications team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

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